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Williams v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

September 14, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Peggy Louise Williams appeals the ALJ's 2017 decision finding her not disabled. She argues the ALJ erred in (1) failing to provide a function-by-function determination in defining her residual functional capacity (“RFC”), (2) assessing certain medical opinions, (3) discounting lay witness statements, and (4) failing to proceed to step five in the sequential evaluation. Dkt. 13 at 1. As discussed below, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's final decision and REMANDS the case for further proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         A. Function-by-Function Determination and Dr. Goff's Opinions

         The ALJ found Ms. Williams has the RFC to perform “light work.” Tr. 515. Ms. Williams argues the ALJ erred by failing to perform a function-by-function assessment of her ability to “stand, walk, and sit” in determining her RFC, as required by SSR 96-8p (“the RFC assessment is a function-by-function assessment based upon all of the relevant evidence of an individual's ability to do work-related activities.”). SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *3 (July 2, 1996). Essentially, the ALJ performs a function-by-function analysis to avoid overlooking any of the individual's limitations or restrictions. Id. at *4. An ALJ does this by identifying a claimant's “functional limitations or restrictions and assess[es] her work-related abilities on a function by function basis.” Id. at * 1. The ALJ then considers each function separately, even if the final RFC assessment will combine activities. Id. However, the ALJ need not perform a function-by-function analysis for impairments the ALJ “found neither credible nor supported by the record.” Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1217 (9th Cir. 2005). But for this standard to apply, the ALJ must have properly rejected credible evidence supported by the record.

         Ms. Williams' argument thus turns on whether the ALJ properly evaluated the opinions of Barbara Goff, M.D., and Justin Turner, M.D. If the ALJ did not, then the ALJ harmfully erred. Dr. Goff treated Ms. Williams for cancer and opined: Ms. Williams' claim that her peripheral neuropathy prevents her from using her hands more than 1/3 of a workday or standing/walking six hours per day is reasonable, Tr. 500; Ms. Williams cannot stand a total of six hours in an eight hour day, Tr. 501; and Ms. Williams might need neuropsychological testing to assess memory deficits. Id.

         The ALJ rejected Dr. Goff's opinion for five reasons. First, Ms. Williams' activities―working full days at her sister's daycare, performing most household chores, helping a daughter move, and spending a day at a casino with her husband―contradict the doctor's opinions. These activities do not contradict Dr. Goff's opinions because they do not necessarily require “handling” ability of more than 1/3 of day, or the ability to stand more than six hours.

         Second, Dr. Goff's opinion is inconsistent with Ms. Williams' testimony that she can only walk one block before needing 20 minutes rest, with her collection of unemployment benefits after she stopped working, and with how she stopped looking for work to care for her husband. Dr. Goff did not opine how long Ms. Williams could walk before needing rest. She simply opined Ms. Williams could not walk or stand six hours a day, an opinion which is not inconsistent with Ms. Williams' testimony. Dr. Goff also did not opine Ms. Williams could perform no work activity. Hence Ms. Williams receipt of benefits or care for her husband do not contradict Dr. Goff's opinions.

         Third, that Ms. Williams “overstates her difficulties, ” i.e., is not credible. The ALJ does not provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting a doctor's opinion by questioning the credibility of the patient's complaints where the doctor does not discredit those complaints and supports his ultimate opinion with his own observations. Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1159 (9th Cir. 2001). Here Dr. Goff accepted Ms. Williams' complaints. Dr. Goff's opinions also appear to be based on her clinical assessment and the treatment she provided Ms. Williams for her physical problems. This is highlighted by how Dr. Goff declined to give opinions regarding Ms. Williams' cognitive status, stating she did not evaluate Ms. Williams for cognitive problems. Tr. 501.

         Fourth, Dr. Goff's opinion is inconsistent with other medical evidence such as how Ms. Williams can walk with a normal gait; has good range of motion, and motor strength; and is “content” with her medication management. Tr. 518. However, Dr. Goff did not opine Ms. Williams lacked normal gait, or lacked good range of movement or motor strength. Hence there is no contradiction. Rather she opined Ms. Williams could not stand or walk six hours in a day. Further the fact Ms. Williams is “content” with her medications in no way contradicts the doctor's opinions. The doctor did not say Ms. Williams was not “content” with her medications, and the ALJ provided no discussion as to how or why the medications Ms. Williams received were somehow inconsistent with Dr. Goff's opinions about Ms. Williams' limitations. Hence while Ms. Williams' statement might indicate she is getting good treatment, it doesn't show Dr. Goff's opinions are off-base.

         Fifth, Dr. Turner's opinions are inconsistent with Dr. Goff's. Tr. 518-19. Dr. Turner examined Ms. Williams in March 2016, which the ALJ acknowledged is well past the date last insured, the relevant period at issue. Dr. Turner opined Ms. Williams required regular breaks from standing or walking due to limiting symptoms caused by Ms. Williams' peripheral neuropathy. Tr. 810-11. Dr. Turner's opinion is thus consistent with Dr. Goff's in that both doctors opined peripheral neuropathy limited Ms. Williams, not inconsistent as the ALJ found.

         The Court notes the ALJ rejected Dr. Turner's opinion that peripheral neuropathy limited Ms. Williams. But the ALJ cannot alter Dr. Turner's opinion in order to make it inconsistent with Dr. Goffs. Moreover, the ALJ's rationale for rejecting Dr. Turner's opinion is not supported by substantial evidence. The ALJ rejected Dr. Turner's opinion on the grounds that it is based on Ms. Williams' non-credible statements, rather than the doctor's observations. The ALJ erred because Dr. Turner did not find Ms. Williams unbelievable. Further Dr. Turner stated “She is limited due to her neuropathy as demonstrated during the exam as she experienced developed burning discomfort with coordination gait activities during the exam.” Tr. 817. Hence the ALJ's findings that the doctor made no observations regarding Ms. Williams' neuropathic discomfort is not supported by substantial evidence.

         The Court notes Ms. Williams argues the ALJ erred in adopting the opinion of state agency reviewing doctors Alnoor Virji, M.D., and Wayne Hurley, M.D. Dkt. 15 at 6-7. The Court need not discuss the argument because as discussed above, the ALJ erred in rejecting Dr. Goff's opinions and Dr. Turner's opinion about limitations caused by peripheral neuropathy, and the matter must be remanded for further proceedings.

         B. Lezlie ...

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